October 2008 OneTwo Townhouse
The client for this project is Carol Isaak Barden, a former travel and design writer turned developer. Not your average developer, Barden saw a niche in Houston for Modern dwellings associated with the prestige of a certain level of architectural firm. De Menil is one, Houston firm Strasser Ragni is another, and Seattle’s Olsen Sundberg Kundig Allen is yet another. The houses Barden develops are usually sold before construction is completed.
For the de Menil project—called the OneTwo Townhouse—Barden presented the architect with a tricky site. Houston is mostly flat, but this area has a bit of topography. “The site slopes down and was literally in a flood zone,” says de Menil. “Without harming existing trees we actually raised the site to be sure that the garage would be out of the flood plain.” With the site shored up the challenge became fitting two 2,500-square-foot residences, one on the east/west axis and one on the north/south, that were independent yet connected to the land. De Menil admits it was a somewhat frivolous notion that inspired the design. “We designed the homes to be like two dancers in step,” he says. “Each dancer is holding onto each other yet looking beyond one another.” The metaphor works. The pale gray buildings are each three stories, and with their outward stretching openings they seem to be turning to look toward the downtown skyline. “The architectural expression of the forms comes directly from the size of the lot and the setbacks,” says de Menil. “And we chose stucco because it gives those forms a sculptural feel. It’s used often in Houston and seems to work well there.”
Like stucco, other simple, elegant materials were used throughout. Ipe for floors and outdoor decking and mahogany for cabinetry. Each unit has a woodburning fireplace (de Menil is not a fan of gas fireplaces), and they both have roof decks and share a common plaza, but otherwise the two units are quite distinct. One has a winding staircase and two bedrooms, while the other has a deck off the master bedroom, three bedrooms, and more views.
According to Carol Isaak Barden, those views are what attracted her to the site. “You can see the skyline, and watch the KHOU TV helicopter take off and land from its helipad across the street. It’s urban and yet it’s also a very green view, looking into trees. It’s surprising.” Not surprising to Barden is that the houses sold immediately, both to single businessmen from California who didn’t know each other (and declined being interviewed for this article). “Houston has a lot of predictable boxes,” she says, “I wanted to do something exciting, something different. People were very curious about these houses right off the bat.”
The biggest surprise to de Menil was that he and his team made the two buildings fit on the site. But fit they do, and luckily still stand undamaged after Hurricane Ike blasted through Houston in mid September. “We made the light come in on all four sides, which makes them feel more spacious than they are, and even with all those openings they don’t look directly at each other,” says de Menil. “It was challenging, but we made it work.”